Promises and Pitfalls of Web Access Course Materials
(Lessons Learned the Hard Way)

 Wesley Chun

Department of Plant, Soil and Entomological Sciences
University of Idaho
Moscow, ID  83844-2339

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Internet resources were heavily used to support a new course, “Biotechnology and Society”, at the University of Idaho.  This course was developed as a contribution to the new Core Curriculum Program.  This program consists of new courses designed to broaden knowledge and foster lifelong learning while satisfying “core” course requirements for undergraduate degrees.  While this effort was not a “plant pathology” course, it was taught by a plant pathologist and covered a wide range of topics that symposium participants may find useful.  More importantly, sharing “lessons learned” with using electronic support material will help participants avoid pitfalls and recognize limitations of the web.  The University of Idaho has been ranked 13th by Yahoo as one of the 100 Most Wired Colleges in the United States.  We were one of the first to have Internet2, supporting multiple computer laboratories on campus as well as a new wireless laptop “loan” program in our Campus Commons.  All dormitory rooms on campus have been hardwired to support Internet access by individual students via their personal computers.  Thus, infrastructure for Internet use is in place and ready access is available to all students.

Student Preparedness for the Web (I can’t get my e-mail to work)

Ready access does not guarantee ready use by students.  For many of us, using computers has become as instinctive as breathing.  Daily use of electronic communication, word processing, and presentation design, as well as a university’s Internet infrastructure, can lead to faulty assumptions.  These assumptions were:  1) students check their e-mail on a regular basis; 2) all students know how to use word processing and presentation programs; and 3) all students can utilize web-posted presentation information.  Graduate students readily adapt to web-based materials and e-mail with links is an efficient means of communication.  Undergraduate students (new or entering), require some coaching and direction with accessing materials via the web.  As a case example, it took a month to establish a working e-mail list of class members.  Despite regular e-mail use, there are students who claim not to be able to receive e-mail.  There are those that still do not know how to attach files to e-mail messages.  Thus, Internet instruction is needed to ensure equal and efficient access to course materials and for instructor-student communication.  The solution is simple, spend at least 30 minutes at the beginning of the semester to “demonstrate” your class website to the students.  Follow-up with an e-mail message requiring the student to perform a function that will be used in later class exercises.  As an example, you can attach a file, using the editing functions of the word processor, ask the students to act on the editing comments and return the file as an attachment.  The file can be short, but informative, containing some class related material.  There are many other techniques.  However, it rests on instructor ingenuity.

Instructor Preparedness for the Web (I’ll convert my notes to PowerPoint)

There is no doubt that the Internet is a powerful learning tool and holds a wealth of information.  Information gathering has been easier, with one main caveat, informational accuracy.  Internet information is not always subject to review processes.  Thus, students must be instructed to verify their information.  Critical thinking becomes an essential filter for web-derived information.  For example, a timeline of Biotechnology and Miscellaneous Historical Events was constructed for the class.  This was not peer reviewed and others may disagree with the location and labeling of events.  However, readers (students) will perceive such information as inherently true.  Thus, both instructor and students must be made aware of this pitfall.

Many of our departmental instructors have embraced electronic presentation media.  It is an opportunity to combine visual imagery with instructional material.  As an example, Dr. Jack Brown’s presentation is rich with visual images and provided a captivating presentation for the class.  Fortunately, we can tap into the creativity and industriousness of others for such materials on the web.  The lecture on Chromosome Replication illustrates three points.  The major point is that more detailed information can be presented than can be done with a chalkboard.  The second point, illustrated by the last slide, is that links may not be active.  Thus, linked files can be a powerful visual aid for learning but will require maintenance.  A third point is the reader’s computer must have certain software to run the materials.  The following example requires both PowerPoint and QuickTime (see slide 27 of the lecture titled What is a Gene, The Genetic Code and How Proteins are Made).  Slide 27 also illustrated the use of animated images as learning tools.

Learning curves are associated with utilizing Internet/electronic media for instruction.  Lecture notes conversion to a PowerPoint presentation is a major achievement for some instructors.  Presentations that have intricate details (see Cosmids and Genomic Library Construction) are time consuming.  It is a simple matter to add text in presentations but it will take time to fully learn how to use all the features of presentation software.


Internet based materials for course instruction open a doorway for distance education. However, I shall conjecture here that PowerPoint is merely an electronic chalkboard.  Other technologies must be included to fully employ the power of the web as a learning experience.  Video technology (streaming video, video clips, etc.) should be incorporated into our presentations.  The technology for video interaction via the web must be also be employed to maintain visual contact between instructor and the distant student.  Most importantly, our materials must be made engaging.  While not educational in nature, Stan Lee has an engaging site.  This is a dangerous proposition, as we may have to become or hire presentation production managers, both of which consume time and resources.  Courses will no longer depend solely on content, but will require imagination and creativity to create a learning experience for the student.  This will be a far cry from the paper and pen learning that many of us endured.  Can we meet this challenge?  I’m going to give it my best shot.


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